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Letter from Chief Meteorologist Bob Harrigan

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Posted: Friday, May 30, 2014 12:00 pm

Sarasota, Fla. -- The 2013 hurricane season was a bust for many prognosticators, who were predicting a very active season. As it turned out there were only 2 hurricanes in 2013, and both of those were minimal. During an average season there are usually 6 hurricanes, and 3 of those becoming major storms with winds greater than 110 mph.

For nearly 2 decades the Atlantic basin, (Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic and Caribbean) has seen above average hurricane production. This is primarily due to what is called, the Atlantic multi decadal oscillation, which really means, a warmer than normal water temperatures in the tropical areas of the Atlantic Ocean. Water temperatures were above average last year, before the start of the 2013 hurricane season, which is June 1st. This, along with several other factors, suggested to forecasters that we would see at least 3-6 major hurricanes. We didn’t have one such storm develop, thankfully. The main reason to this slow season was dry air that moved in over much of the Atlantic. Storms need warm moist air to be in place to get things going.

Well this year, the scientists who make these predictions are suggesting we will see another weak season of storms. This forecast is not due to the dry air, but attributed to a forecast El Nino by mid-summer. When El Nino (warming of the E. Pacific near Peru) forms, it creates more shear in the atmosphere and sinking air in the tropical region of the Atlantic basin. This tends to inhibit formation of hurricanes. It doesn’t mean it stops them completely, so even though we are anticipating fewer storms this year, it doesn’t give you the green light to not prepare.

Having 9 storms compared to say 20, does not really reduce our overall percentage of feeling an impact from one of these life threatening storms. These seasonal forecasts should be seen more as a wakeup call to the fact that the season is about to begin and you should be getting your plan of attack together sooner than later.

No two hurricane plans are alike. Each plan will be unique to that household. The number one thing people should know is, what hurricane evacuation zone do I live? Do you know what size storm would force you from your home? Evacuations are issued based on storm surge, not wind speed. The old saying, “Run from the water, and hide from the wind” tells it all. If you live outside of the evacuation zone, and your dwelling is shuttered properly, you should be able to ride the storm out there. If you live near the Gulf of Mexico or a bay or river connected to the Gulf then you may be told to evacuate if a storm is threatening. The zones are determined according to the elevation of the land. The lower the elevation, the more likely your area will be flooded by storm surge. Looking through this survival guide you will be able to determine what zone you are living in. The zones are labeled zone A through E, A being the lowest elevation, and zone E the highest. Knowing this information before hand will give you quicker response time to leave if asked to do so.

If you do decide to ride out the storm in your home or shelter, remember it’s not going to be easy after the storm is long gone. In fact, sometimes the hardest part of the storm isn’t the strong winds and surge, but the after effects of these devastating storms. You may be without power for well over a week, depending upon the intensity of the storm. Can you imagine not having AC for even a day, let alone a week during the summer? If it is a slow moving storm, it may produce an incredible amount of rain. Tropical storm Allison in 2001 dropped over 40” of rain on TX and flooded 70,000 homes, destroying nearly 3000 of them. When lakes and ponds overfill, snakes, alligators and fire ants become a significant problem to the safety of humans. I remember one photographer here at ABC 7 needing special attention from firefighters after getting attacked by a ball of fire ants that landed on him after a flood event he was covering. The survival instinct of these pests it to gather into a ball and float down the stream until if finds something to cling on to, in this case his leg served that purpose. During Allison, the city of Houston, which saw over 35” of rain over several days, had every major road and highway under several feet of water.

Having a plan is crucial to surviving these storms. Remember each storm is different it what it brings with it to the coast. Some are small intense wind storms like Charley in 2004, others massive storms like Sandy in 2013, while others heavy rain makers like Fay in 2008, which dumped over 25” of rain near Melbourne FL. No two storms are alike, and having a plan for whatever Mother Nature throws at you will make the difference between life and significant injury or even death.

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